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Rising Costs Close El Salvador Business

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SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- It was evening, the sun just made its descent into night, and the pupusaria was hoping. The little Salvadoran house turned restaurant was packed to capacity: a table of young Japanese volunteers sat in the front corner, two tables of young Salvadoran men in the center of the room, and one entire family, a lonely creep, two cops, two gringos, and a rowdy white baby rounded out the company of the room.

Everybody was stuffing themselves full of pupusas, which where themselves stuffed full of beans, ayote, and meat. The pupusaria girls were running between the tables, delivering the towering stacks of this namesake food in rapid succession, sometimes proliferating bottles of beer or soda pop in between. — with my rowdy baby tucked away under one of their arms all the while. In the front room, just before the main entrance, a large grill was aflame, and half cooked corn and rice flour patties were evenly distributed over its surface. The pupusas belched out their bean and mozerella guts as they flipped and danced all over the scalding surface. This grill served as the restaurant’s helm, and the lady making and flipping the pupusas was the captain of this little pupusaria in Suchitoto, El Salvador.

People seemed happy eating at this restaurant — I was happy eating here — the place was always packed at meal times, the workers friendly, and the pupusas were the best in town. I must admit my surprise as I walked by the pupusaria this afternoon and found two of the workers sitting outside with nothing to do. They called me over. The pupusaria was closed.

I looked over their shoulders, it was true: the two long grills whose duty it was to sport a squadron of pupusas were empty, pulled away from the wall, and disconnected from their gas tanks. They were being packed up and readied to move.

“When are you closing?” I asked.

“We are already closed,” they answered, “no more pupusas.”

I had just eaten there the night before last, the place was filled to capacity, and now they had closed up shop and went out of business. It just did not seem right to me.

I took a parting photograph of the girls, said goodbye, and returned home to inform my wife of the sad news: we would need to find another pupusaria. But I soon returned to the closing pupusaria with my family, there was something more to this story — and I also felt that tinge of pre-emptive nostalgia that arises when you catch a glimpse of change occurring right before you.

The owner of the pupusaria and the girls welcomed us back inside, we sat and talked while the workers completed a few remaining chores. One of them handed Chaya and I complimentary bottles of Coca-Colas, and we had to call her off as she tried to give our baby Petra her very first taste of soda pop. The fridge was being clean out.

We asked the owner why she was closing, and she replied simply that after being in this location for five years the costs of running the business became too high to sustain, that her water bill alone came to $112 a month, and that electricity costs were also soaring. Chaya and I must have looked surprised by these numbers — you could buy 336 pupusas for the cost of the water bill alone — and the owner explained that she is charged vastly more money for utilities because she runs a business.

It struck me as odd how this restaurant was full of customers just the night before and today they were shut down and moving out. I asked the owner when she decided to close up shop.

“Yesterday,” she replied simply with enough nonchalance to make me think that it was a matter of simple routine for her to close businesses that she ran by hand for half a decade.

Yesterday, business was booming; today, the doors were closed. Change happens quick in Central America: revolutions, wars, coops, and political uprisings dot the collective life of the people’s history here, the shutting down of a pupusaria seems to be hardly worth mention — even by the people who ran it. The pupusaria is closed, on with life, on with life.

“Where will you go now,” I then asked the owner.

She was thus prompted into speaking of her “big, beautiful house” in San Salvador. She is going home, back to her husband. The owner invited us to join her. She plans to open a pupusaria in her house, and carry on.

And carry on. These three words could perhaps be the mantra of Central America, the mantra of most of the world.

I then asked the workers, who only discovered that they would be unemployed the day before, what they were going to do. One answered that she was going to stay at home, I am not sure what the other said. But neither of them seemed to be overtly concerned — they seemed more worried about the fact that they may not have the opportunity to play with baby again than anything else.

Petra was sitting on a table as they sat in chairs around her, poking and playing — perhaps for one last time.

It is not my impression that anybody at this restaurant was crying “no fair!” No, moving through difficulties seems to be a matter of course here — it seems to be the modus operandi for life in this region of the world. For low level, casual laborers in El Salvador, being laid off does not seem to be a complete and total tragedy. The society seems prepared for dealing with these tumultuous turns of employment: the girls will, apparently, stay at home until another job comes up.

Food and money here seems to gravitate within families here from those who have it to those who need it, and the invisible hand of remittances hold many families in El Salvador afloat.

Life happens here, and the people seem perpetually ready deal with it. If a casual laborer looses a job, oh well, they move on, find another job, do something else. The pupusaria girls did not seem too worried about being so suddenly let go. It is my impression that changes are simply absorbed or adapted to here, I have known few societies with as much resilience as those throughout Central America. I suppose there is nothing else to be done.

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Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, Economics, El Salvador

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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